Cold War Era

Bringing them home: Bat 21 and the other big CSAR operations of the Vietnam War

Many shot-down pilots recalled that the sound of a Sandy overhead lifted their spirits in desperate situations.

During the Vietnam War, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) personnel had a significant impact and lived up to their motto: That Others May Live. They saved a total of 4,120 people, including 2,780 in combat situations. Their individual achievements earned them two Medals of Honor, 38 Air Force Crosses, and numerous other awards. However, the cost was high as 71 U.S. rescue personnel were killed and 45 aircraft destroyed during the war.

As explained by Peter E. Davies in his book Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73, SAR attempts could become major operations involving numerous aircraft over several days.

On an armed reconnaissance mission by a Stormy FAC flight including F-4D Phantom II (66-8773) over southern Laos on Jan. 17, 1969, the crew attacked a 37mm AAA site. One F-4D was hit, crashing in flames. The back-seat WSO managed to eject and triggered a rescue effort that involved 284 aircraft. From the first flight of Sandy A-1Hs, one (52-134632) was shot down and an HH-53B helicopter “Jolly Green 67” moved in to rescue its pilot, Lt Col Lurrie Morris, commander of the 602nd SOS, and search for the F-4D crew. It was badly damaged and crash-landed near Tchepone. A second HH-53B “Jolly Green 70” moved in to rescue its crew and Morris while strike aircraft destroyed “Jolly Green 67” to prevent its capture. The following day, as the search for the F-4 pilot continued, another Sandy (52-134588) and its pilot, Capt Robert Coady, were lost to intense 37mm fire. An O-2A, assessing damage to trucks from the previous night, was hit in the same area and the rescue force was diverted to pick up its crew while Sandys kept the enemy away with tear gas.

A-1E Skyraider escorts an HH-3C rescue helicopter on a CSAR mission in 1966.

One of the biggest SAR operations took place in one of the most heavily defended areas of the Ho Chi Minh Trail near Ban Phanop in southern Laos to recover a 12th TFW F-4C crew, “Boxer 22.” After a 37mm hit the crew ejected and a 51-hour rescue attempt involving 366 sorties (171 by A-1 Sandys) began on Dec. 5, 1969. On the first day, seven Nakhon Phanom helicopters attempted a recovery, one of them getting its tail boom stuck in a tree. All were driven away by ground fire and 47 A-1 sorties were flown around the clock to suppress gunfire from around a hundred sources. The F-4C pilot, Capt Ben Danielson, was killed by NVA troops but his back-seater, 1Lt Woodie Bergeron, was finally snatched by an HH-53 from behind a heavy smokescreen after two nights on the ground or immersed in a river under foliage. A parajumper was killed and five A-1s and 12 other aircraft received severe damage. The A-1 Sandy force of 24 aircraft returned to Nakhon Phanom en masse and 4,000 people at the base turned out to greet the HH-53 containing Bergeron. It was a graphic demonstration of the US objective of protecting its own men at great cost. That knowledge was undoubtedly supportive to airmen as they undertook extraordinarily risky missions over Laos and Vietnam. Many shot-down pilots recalled that the sound of a Sandy overhead lifted their spirits in desperate situations.

Another extraordinary example of the determination of SAR crews occurred on Apr. 2, 1972, when EB-66C 54-0466 “Bat 21,” providing ECM protection for an Arc Light attack, was shot down by an SA-2 near the DMZ. Only one crew member, 53-year-old navigator Lt Col Iceal “Gene” Hambleton, ejected, landing close to an NVA troop concentration. The largest SAR operation of the war was mounted over the following 11 days (dramatized in the movie Bat 21, starring Gene Hackman as Hambleton). An HC-130 “King Bird” flying over the site was damaged by another SA-2 but a Da Nang-based O-2A FAC, Lt Col Bill Jankowski, contacted Hambleton as he parachuted down. His position was later confirmed by Capt Gary Ferentchak in a Pave Nail OV-10A. Sandy A-1s moved in, strafing NVA troops within 300ft of Hambleton’s position. Four US Army helicopters attempted a rescue but two were shot down. Several FACs remained on station the next day, one of them (OV-10A Nail 38) being shot down by an SA-2. Over the following 11 days, 90 strike sorties were flown daily to protect Hambleton and another OV-10A, “Covey 282,” was lost. On Apr. 6, in a final rescue effort, a 37th ARRS HH-53C was hit by machine-gun fire and all its occupants were killed when it crashed. Hambleton was eventually able to reach a riverbank, where he was rescued by a special forces SEAL team which had also recovered Nail pilot 1Lt Mark Clark. SEAL team leader Lt Tom Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor for his rescue effort.

Lt. Col. Icheal “Gene” Hambleton

Ho Chi Minh Trail 1964-73 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force and TriStar Pictures

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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